Wednesday 12 August 2015

Learning the wrong lessons

Over the past week, there have been a number of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities at the end of the Second World War.  And media coverage has been accompanied by some of the usual rationalisations for the action taken, and for the continued possession of nuclear weapons.
The customary justification of those who support the use made of the weapons is that it helped to end the war early, and saved more lives than it cost.  I’ll admit that I don’t know if that’s true or not; the nature of history is that we can only ever live it once, we can’t go back and do something different to see what would have happened.  There is some evidence in support of the view that more lives were saved than taken, but there is also plenty of evidence against it.
Bridgend’s Green Leftie has set out some of the evidence to suggest that the argument about saving more lives than it cost wasn’t true – and that the people involved had enough knowledge at the time to know that what they were saying was untrue.  Maybe.  It looks convincing to me, but then I start from a pre-disposition to believe that. 
But let’s give those who justify the bombings the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that they really did believe that what they were doing was the lesser of two evils.  It seems to me that even on the basis of that assumption, there are two serious questions to be asked before one can excuse their actions.
The first is whether there really were only two choices – all out land invasion fighting inch by inch over the Japanese islands or dropping atomic bombs to annihilate two cities.  Reducing the options to two is a technique often used to justify taking a particular course of action; but such a simplistic binary choice rarely reflects the subtleties of life in the real world.  The argument that it saved more lives than it cost stands up only if we accept the premise that there were only two choices; those making that argument are wilfully over-simplifying. 
But the second question is, for me, the crucial one.  Even supposing it were true, on what basis does any civilised human being decide that killing 200,000 plus citizens, selected solely on the basis of where they live, in an act of deliberate mass extermination, is ‘better’ than the possibility that a greater number will die elsewhere, based on what can only be estimates and guesses?  It’s not that I don’t understand the mathematics of it – it’s as simple as believing that X is greater than Y.  But it’s the dehumanisation involved which is the issue; the treating of people with names and families as just numbers whose lives can be weighed and valued against the lives of others as though on a giant set of scales.
It’s too easy to dismiss that attitude as the product of a vicious total war which had already raged for 6 years and taken millions of lives.  It might, almost, be comprehensible (even if not excusable) in that context.  But those who support the continued possession of weapons of mass destruction are effectively applying the same type of judgement today, because there is no purpose at all in possessing such weapons unless those who possess them are willing to use them.
That includes every UK Prime Minister, Tory and Labour alike, since the end of the war in which nuclear weapons were first used.  All of them, even free of the pressures of immediate war, have effectively declared their willingness to eliminate whole cities and all those who live in them, selected for death solely on the basis of location. 
The lesson which we should learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it should never happen again.  The lesson which our ‘leaders’ actually seem to have learnt is that possessing the biggest stick and being willing to use it on randomly selected victims allows the big boys to get their own way in the world.
Sometimes, ‘human progress’ sounds like an oxymoron.

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